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Sacred Grounds or Copper Mines? The Legal Battle Over Oak Flat Intensifies

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Dr. Jessica Nelson
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Sacred Grounds or Copper Mines? The Legal Battle Over Oak Flat Intensifies

Sacred Grounds or Copper Mines? The Legal Battle Over Oak Flat Intensifies

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In the heart of central Arizona lies Oak Flat, a serene expanse of national forest land embroiled in a contentious legal battle. This struggle is not merely about land but about the clash between the preservation of sacred Native American sites and the pursuit of economic development through mining. At the center of this conflict is Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group steadfast in its mission to protect Oak Flat for religious ceremonies, standing firm against Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, which eyes the land for its vast copper ore deposits.

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A Sacred Site versus Economic Progress

For the Apache Stronghold, Oak Flat is more than just land; it is a sacred space integral to their religious practices, likened to Mount Sinai's significance in Abrahamic religions. The group's determination to preserve this site has led to a yearslong legal tussle, aiming to halt the U.S. government's land transfer to Resolution Copper. This transfer, approved in a 2014 military spending bill, has been met with fierce opposition, sparking a debate that transcends environmental concerns, touching on religious freedom and tribal sovereignty. Recent court rulings have favored the mining project, despite Apache Stronghold's appeal to federal courts citing violations under the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and an 1852 treaty.

The Economic Argument and Community Consultations

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On the flip side, Resolution Copper and its proponents argue the project's economic benefits, promising to supply a significant portion of the U.S. copper demand, potentially injecting $1 billion yearly into Arizona's economy, and creating thousands of jobs. The company has also emphasized its efforts to engage with local communities and tribes since 2008, leading to project modifications that include maintaining public access to certain areas of Oak Flat and permanently protecting Apache Leap. Despite these assurances, the project has drawn criticism for potentially desecrating a site sacred to the Western Apaches and for the environmental impact of mining operations.

A Divided Opinion and the Path Forward

The legal battle over Oak Flat showcases a deep divide, with a recent 6-5 decision by a federal court panel upholding the denial of a preliminary injunction against the land transfer. This ruling has been met with disappointment from Apache Stronghold, which vows to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, supporters of the mining project, including some local officials, view it as a potential game-changer for the region's economy. Critics, including U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, condemn the ruling for overlooking the significance of tribal religious freedoms and sovereignty. The ongoing dispute underscores the complex interplay between preserving sacred lands and pursuing economic development, a balance that remains elusive as both sides prepare for the next chapter in this legal saga.

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